Not since the Great Depression when Arthur Lonborg was coach had Northwestern basketball enjoyed the level of success of the Johnny Shurna Era. Shurna’s Northwestern teams were invited four straight years to the NIT and advanced to the third round for the first time two years ago. Previously NU basketball had a total of three non-consecutive NIT invites over its entire history. NU also won 76 times over the four year period – making the Shurna Era the winningest period in program history. Also for the first time in history NU broke the 20 win barrier in a season and then did it again the following year just for good measure.
Together with this success was a remarkable consistency across the four years. B1G records: 8-10, 7-11, 7-11, 8-10. Kenpom rankings: 70, 82, 49, 70. Snarky cynics might point out that consistency is nothing new for this program that had perennially been a Big Ten cellar dweller, but to be consistent at what once was considered the rare high water mark for the program was a big step forward.
But all-time NU scoring leader Johnny Shurna has graduated and is now job hunting for a roster spot somewhere overseas. So now what?
Louisville transfer and mercenary-for-hire Jared Swopshire looks to be the guy who eats up most of Shurna’s 35-40 minutes this season. While Swopshire reportedly will fill the shoes on the "aw-shucks what a good guy" level there is little doubt he will not fill Shurna's shoes by himself offensively. The skinny on Swopshire is that he doesn’t have Shurna’s deadeye from long range, but he is more adept in slashing to the hoop and finishing at the rim. This difference in offensive repertoire should help NU’s role players who camp out beyond the arc. In sum it is fair to expect that Swopshire will be an able replacement for Johnny Shurna and will bring a different offensive dimension to the Wildcats this year, but NU will need to look elsewhere for additional offense to make up for a shortfall to Shurna’s 20 PPG. On net NU will need an additional 10-12 PPG from elsewhere.
Drew Crawford will be the man this year, and we believe he is ready to step up his game about 4-5 PPG to a 20+ PPG level. Crawford and Swopshire are expected to have a QB-WR dynamic this year whereby both know exactly where the other is on the court at all times. We expect to see Drew slashing hard to the hoop when he ball gets swung down low to Swopshire and vice versa. We also think that pending the defensive matchup Crawford will play the role of gunner off feeds out of the low post.
Freshman Alex Olah and red-shirt freshman Mike Turner will step into the void at the center position. Olah is a space eater who can finish close to the rim, and Turner is strong and agile. It is expected that both will demand more attention than either Luka Mirkovic or Davide Curletti did last season. Expect a few more PPG out of this spot and some more space around the perimeter from this change in the roster. Can Olah/Turner effectively pass out of the low post? Stay tuned.
Tre Demps returns from a medical redshirt. He is a guy who brings more length and athleticism to the guard spot than Marcotullio and Sobolewski. We expect that to help NU’s defense more than anything. On offense our secret hope is for Demps to develop a solid mid range game ala Cobb and be able to slash to the hoop on occasion.
Dave Sobolewski is a year older so some hope that he will make a leap. Ditto that for Marcotullio and Hearn. We don’t know about all that, but this trio would be the main beneficiaries of an improved low post game. If this happens then look for about five ppg improvement from these three plus Demps.
There is some talk about Kale and Sanjay playing this year. We think that would happen only if necessitated by injury so we're hoping both will redshirt (along with fellow freshman Chier whom everyone already assumes will be redshirted).
Swopping Shurna for Swopshire: -12 PPG
Improved Crawford: +4 PPG
Improved Center Offense: +3 PPG
Improved Guard Offense: +5 PPG
On net: no change in offense.
It’s beyond the scope of this post, but defense is likely to improve at least a few PPG just by adding some heft and athleticism at the center position and elsewhere on the court as well.
We have to fess up that we thought that there would be a noticeable drop off from last season. How could there not be with Johnny Shurna no longer around? If the above sum of parts analysis holds true then NU could actually be better this year. Fancy that!